Today marks one year since I founded Imperial Reviews and it seems quite fitting that I go back to my review writing roots so to speak and publish an article on the genre that I used to focus at the very start. A gorgeous 2D indie platformer once again. Sundered is the brainchild of Thunder Lotus Games, known until now as the developers of Jotun: Valhalla Edition. Well, their second Steam (& console) project shares its visual DNA with Jotun but other than that, it is an entirely different genre and experience. I was surprised to read that Sundered’s successful Kickstarter campaign, had amassed nearly ten times as much as its initial goal. If that doesn’t speak by itself about this developer and the expectations from their already established fanbase, then I don’t know what it might be.
From its very first minutes, Sundered introduces players into a fascinating and mystical post-apocalyptic world in which survival of the fittest seems to leave room for interpretation. The game’s protagonist isn’t exactly silent, but I’ll just consider her taciturn. Despite the sprite and the character clothing which may reflect ambiguity, the consensus is that Sundered has a heroine. Her name is Eshe and she seems like a cross between the Prince(ss) of Persia and Dirk the Daring (Sundered’s animation style did remind me of Dragon’s Lair afterall).
Please forgive the gender discrepancies. You may regard her as heroic as Shantae or Samus Aran instead. Following her odyssey through an unforgiving desert, Eshe gets captured by the mysterious Shining Trapezohedron (obvious H.P. Lovecraft influence) which tasks her with reactivating certain shrines within the ruins of former civilization. The reasons for this endeavour are as elusive as the entity whose now controlling Eshe’s destiny. A trapezohedron is a complex geometric figure by the way. I really appreciate the abstract elements to the storyline and how the lines between good and evil are blurred within Sundered.
I had to dig deep within the game files in order to have the confirmation that Sundered is indeed another Unity Engine project. Or I could have simply assumed this fact since Jotun shares the graphics and the hand-drawn, classic 2D animation. I grew up in the ‘90s so I may be biased towards “simpler times” when 3D animations were a far cry, but video games which emulate memories from my childhood are indeed a pleasure for me to play and look at. I couldn’t find a single flaw to the visual style no matter how hard I tried searching for one. Sundered is both a sight to behold and a stable gaming experience. The fonts & sprites are upscaling nicely to my native resolution of 3840×2160 and the frame rate never dropped below 60, no matter how many foes Eshe was fighting simultaneously.
The soundtrack is top notch and the sound effects are on par, but I was really pleased by the voice acting, particularly that of the Shining Trapezohedron. Its voice resembled the Semitic language group but I think it was fictional in the end. Constructed languages count among my many interests, so the dev team’s efforts have been duly noted by yours truly. Few platformers contain noteworthy sound assets and the ones on Steam suffer from this even more so. Indie devs simply can reach the Nintendo level of quality (budgetary constraints and all) but I think Thunder Lotus Games are an exception which proves the rule.
Since I already mentioned Nintendo, it seems that Sundered is another fine example of “Metroidvania”: a subgenre of the action-adventure which draws gameplay inspiration from the eponymous Metroid or Konami’s Castlevania series. It goes without saying that difficulty plays center stage in the aforementioned classics as it does in Sundered’s case as well. Trial & error are deeply embedded in both the story and gameplay. As one of the messages from the loading screens boldly states: “Even death won’t save you from this place”. It is in fact, just another phase through which you must travel and at the end of that proverbial tunnel, the heroine only emerges stronger and more determined.
In-game fatalities result in a return to the Shining Trapezohedron Sanctuary and its eloquently named Trapezohedron (Skill) Tree where Eshe can spend shards (consider it currency, if you will) on upgrades which she will surely need if she wishes to advance and eventually defeat the hordes of abstract enemies standing between her and the coveted shrines. These crucial shards shall be obtained through combat, once defeated foes reveal them or by breaking certain objects such as glass cylinders. What, you thought that only Link has to smash pots in order to better himself? Aptly named as hordes since the enemies will constantly try to swarm the protagonist whose magical shield, shatters almost as fast as her health bar.
Eshe’s journey is both perilous and tedious at times. Sad indeed, since the game’s superb looks have to mired by repetitiveness. Combat, enemy variety, locations, you name it. And backtracking is just another nail in the coffin at this point. Pun is intended since death shall return you to the Sanctuary and after you spend shards on new upgrades, guess what? Here comes the long road towards the last place you died and hopefully THIS time, you’ll fare better. You have a lot of time to reflect on that as you backtrack in a useless manner which could have been entirely averted if only Sundered would have implemented even the most basic form of automated progress saving. Checkpoints, naturally. A gameplay mechanic that has been around for almost two decades. Why is it not present here?
I did mark the difficulty as a weak point, even if I am aware that Eshe has to perish and “respawn” in order to improve herself. I can understand gaming difficulty just for the sake of it. Of course I’m a fan of the Dark Souls series and that sort of digital punishment isn’t without its merit. And there are platformers on Steam, far more difficult than Sundered. Super Meat Boy and Shio come to mind. But I have to acknowledge sadly, that even its lowest tier called “Normal” seems like an insurmountable achievement at times. Why is “Easy” used so rarely today, is it some sort of fake validation intent, as if playing the easy mode was not worthy of some gamers?
I really don’t want to lower Sundered’s rating any further than this, since the game is highly entertaining, beautiful and the potential to right some of its wrongs is there. Checkpoints could be added in a subsequent update I hope? They are crucial in the long run and players will appreciate them even more, if they are implemented soon. As for the price tag, it certainly doesn’t feel overpriced and it includes Steam auxiliaries from day one. Say what you will about Sundered, but it’s an obvious step forward for 2D indie platformers. Quality and beauty mixed with difficulty which in turn simply masks the true sense of progression. The game’s motto mirrors this. Resist or Embrace.
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.